Small Wars Journal

Wartime Legacies: The Memoirs of Bush, Cheney, Rice, and Rumsfeld

Thu, 03/08/2012 - 6:06am


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Editor's Notes:  I look forward to readers' comments on this review.  How do you think the Bush Administration's legacy will be viewed in a decade or two?  Will history judge them less harshly with time?  Will these wars been seen as an epochal turning point?  For better or for worse?

Books Reviewed

Decision Points, by George W. Bush (Crown, 2010)

In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir, by Dick Cheney (Threshold Editions, 2011)

No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington, by Condoleezza Rice (Crown, 2011)

Known and Unknown, by Donald Rumsfeld (Sentinel, 2011)

It is the job of historians to examine facts and offer an interpretation within and beyond the current context of previous historians, allowing the readership to decide which arguments offer the most convincing case.  It is the job of the memoirist to present the facts of their own history as they remember them, often with allowance given by their readership for any embellishment or interpretations of events that may not reflect the collective memory.  The Washington-insider memoir combines elements of each, allowing authors to offer their personal recollections in ways meant to shape the interpretation of world events, and the audience a chance to see which side they are on.  After eight years, two difficult wars, and a nation divided to arguably an unprecedented degree, few Washington-insider memoirs were more anticipated than those of the primary members of the National Security Council during all or most of that time. 

When President George W. Bush took office in January of 2001, he was lauded for the team that he brought in with him.  His Vice President, Dick Cheney, had been the Chief of Staff to Gerald Ford, a U.S. Congressman, the Secretary of Defense, and perhaps most infamously, the chairman of his Vice Presidential Selection Committee.  The appointment of Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense made him the oldest and the youngest person to have ever held that important position, in addition to his service as a U.S. Congressman and director of several national initiatives.  Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and others rounded out the prestigious and impressive team that took over during that inauguration.  By September of the same year, the world that they had inherited had turned upside down.  It had become clear that George W. Bush was a wartime president.

By 2004, the impressive roster of advisors and cabinet members had positioned themselves to best handle the hard decisions, draw battle lines, and emerge as leaders in the president’s administration.  Probably few would argue that by the President’s second term, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, and the President himself would be those emerging leaders, applying and implementing the unique aspects of the Bush Doctrine to issues and events around the world.  Between November of 2010 and November or 2011, each of these key administration officials submitted their takes on their difficult time in leadership through the publication of their personal memoirs from that period: President George W. Bush’s Decision Points, Vice President Dick Cheney’s In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s Known and Unknown.  In doing so, they left little doubt that they were intent on mastering both the historian’s craft and the memoirist’s craft, solidifying their legacy while insulating themselves from blame.

Pursuing these ends, these authors chose exceedingly different styles and approaches.  Rice proves to be the most compelling writer in the group, and that by a long shot.  Writing of historical events from a deeply personal level, often including her thoughts and feelings, her fears and her confidences, her victories and defeats.  While not sentimental, it is evocative and emotional, touching on historical events from a deeply personal perspective.  Her powerful personal story, historic in its own right, sits comfortably next to the life and times she would lead the country through the diplomatic and security environments of the post-9/11 world.  She couches the interesting aspects of her life in terms of how her experiences shaped her empathies and strengths as Secretary of State.  President Bush chooses the most unique approach, largely eschewing chronology instead arranging his memoir around major decisions he has made throughout his lifetime.  Whether it was deciding to quit drinking, deciding to run for public office, or deciding to take the nation to wars, his description lays out compelling cases made by a man far more complex than often portrayed.  Cheney has an uncommon storyteller’s touch, and the strength of his book is found in the power of that story.  As he tells it, he was a young man not necessarily destined for greatness but he repeatedly found himself growing more and more comfortable inside the halls of power as he grew older. 

Rumsfeld, on the other hand, distinguishes himself among this group for actively and obviously attempting to shape history in his own favor.   Although he lived a fascinating and significant life, it is lost somewhat in the fact that he clearly sees himself as a towering historical figure, and probably has from a young age.  The most telling example of this is his reliance on footnoting his own memoranda and papers to an extraordinary degree throughout his memoir.  Often the citations are appropriate.  Sometimes, however, his citations are gratuitous and comical, such as when he cites a personal letter describing how he chose the best man for his wedding.  Similar to the footnotes in Rumsfeld’s book are “Rumsfeld’s Rules,” which are often too cute for their own good.  (“Washington, D.C. is sixty Square miles surrounded by reality,” for example.)  Collectively, the self-referential footnotes, the citation of his “rules,” and the book’s overall style create a sense of undignified self-importance that plays into the media-propelled public persona that his autobiography seems to be aimed at defeating.

The stories they tell within the context of these styles are fascinating and important aspects of who these leaders and authors are.  President Bush’s story is as much the story of his family as his own place in it.  As one might expect from the son of a U.S. President, he was compelled to discuss his relationship with his father, his experiences with his father’s political races and career, and the distinctions that he made in his own life.  Far from being defensive or insecure, though, he tends to write his experiences from a fairly straightforward perspective.  Although his family and life were nearly opposite to Bush’s upbringing, Cheney delves back to his family history and childhood as well.  He is candid about his repeated failures at Yale, his somewhat wild youth, and other aspects of his life that seemed to only surface during political seasons.  He proves, though, that his story is much bigger than those incidents, as he details his time as Chief of Staff to the President, Congressman, Secretary of Defense, and eventually Vice President of the United States.

Although Secretary Rice had an incredible career prior to her service in the second Bush administration, serving as the Provost at Stanford University, a Director at Chevron (having a Chevron Supertanker named after her for a short time), and an advisor to President George H. W. Bush, the majority of her focus is on her eight years with George W. Bush as his National Security Advisor and Secretary of State.  But more than just a day-by-day account of her time in government, she also gives her perspective on the historic times in which she served the nation through the lens of the historic times in which she grew up and lived.  She was raised in the segregated south, she is the great-granddaughter of slaves, a childhood friend was killed in a bombing because of desegregation efforts, and her father had difficulty registering to vote in 1952 because of poll tests.  Because of these experiences, she had immense personal credibility in the country, which in turn lent credibility to the nation around the world.  Secretary Rumsfeld tells the story of his childhood, his father’s military service, his time at Princeton, and his own service as a Navy Pilot.  These are mere precursors, though; events that shaped the man that would eventually become a career public servant, which is by far the biggest focus of his book.

Although each author spends considerable time on the challenges and experiences that made them who they are, it is clear and unmistakable that they see these memoirs as opportunities to secure their legacies with respect to the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the wars that followed.  These events are the cornerstones of their legacies, and they use these books to establish that fact and fend off their critics.  Cheney begins his memoir with a prologue entitled “September 11, 2001,” detailing the events as he saw them that day.  Rumsfeld begins his with a section called “Lessons in Terror,” which is largely about his time as an envoy to the Middle East in the 1980s, before backtracking to his childhood in Chicago.  All of them build and focus the entirety of their works around the central theme of the attacks and how they shaped the world they endeavored to lead, with Cheney describing their impact succinctly for everyone:

Although we had experienced the fog of war in the first few hours after the attacks, plenty of things were now clear: We had been attacked by a ruthless enemy willing to slaughter innocents in an effort to bring America to her knees.  This Enemy wasn’t a traditional military force, but terrorists who found safe haven wherever they could and operated on a worldwide scale.  They had struck us before, blowing a crater five stories deep in the World Trade Center in New York in 1993.  Al Qaeda had attacked our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, killing hundreds, including twelve Americans.  Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda’s leader, had personally chosen the operatives who bombed the U.S.S. Cole in a Yemeni harbor in 2000.  Seventeen crew members had died.  During the nineties, the United States had treated terrorist attacks primarily as law enforcement matters, indicting terrorists when we could, trying them, and sending some of them to prison.  But that approach hadn’t stopped the attacks.  Al Qaeda had just delivered the most devastating blow to our homeland in history. (329-330)


Although it is commonly presented to the contrary for the sake of casting political blame, there was plenty of dissent among the ranks of these senior leaders with respect to the immediate and long-term responses to the attacks that defined their time in office.  It should be no surprise, then, that when these key policymakers presented their stories in their memoirs, there would be more than a little score settling and finger pointing to go around.  In fact, there were only mild efforts to paper over the disagreements and differences between them and their various shops.

Rice is frank in her assessment of her relationship with the President, the Vice President, and the Secretary of Defense.  She notes that while she and Rumsfeld were friends socially, they did not get along professionally.  She describes infighting, territorialism, and backchannel efforts that often hurt their relationship and the war efforts in ways that are entirely believable to those who have watched the bloodsport through the media or up close at the Pentagon or the Department of State.  What she does not say is almost as telling.  Although it is hard to guess where lies the truth between the media insider reports and what Rice leaves off the page, her point is made in the praise she heaps on Rumsfeld’s successor, Robert Gates, praise that mostly absent from her description of relationship with Rumsfeld.

Vice President Cheney also proves to be adept at defending his allies and his own legacy alike.  Supporting his old friend, he makes very clear that he owed his career to Don Rumsfeld, a man who once refused him as an intern, but would later refuse to take a high level position in many administrations without taking the young man from Casper, Wyoming along with him.  One much discussed score that Cheney handling very decently was his disappointment with his friend President Bush regarding the pardoning of Scooter Libby, Cheney’s Chief of Staff who was convicted during the Valerie Plame affair.  Early in the book, Cheney goes into great detail discussing President Ford’s decision to pardon Richard Nixon only a few weeks into his tenure as president.  A young Cheney saw the political backlash for such a decision to be greater than any benefit, but admitted that he was wrong: Ford was wise to settle that story and begin work towards healing the nation.  He is less conflicted when he delicately explains later that President Bush had made a lot of courageous decisions over the years, and that he wished pardoning Libby was one of them.

Cheney reserves his harshest rebukes for his real enemies, though.  One might expect him to go after Democrats in Congress, especially those who went after him during his eight years as Vice President.  He does so, methodically showing the hypocrisy of Members of Congress who supported the war while it was popular and switched when it was no longer politically acceptable.  But he also goes out of his way to challenge the legacies and even situate blame around fellow members of the Bush administration.  While he states a special respect and warmth for Rumsfeld, a man with whom he spent much of his career, he shows actual disdain for Secretaries Powell and Rice, the consecutive Secretaries of State.  Whether it was the march to war in Iraq, the handling of the Plame affair, or other diplomatic efforts, Cheney couches his read of Powell in terms of personal disappointment.  Cheney had personally selected Powell as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs while serving as Secretary of Defense under George H. W. Bush and he had high hopes for his old colleague at the State Department.  He is even more dismissive of Rice, who he depicts as naïve and even a little incompetent.

Lest someone write this off as simply evolving from a philosophical difference between the approaches of the Department of Defense (Cheney and Rumsfeld’s stomping grounds) and the Department of State (Powell and Rice) and not simply score settling, two things must be pointed out.  First, while Rice praises the President’s appointment of Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense in 2006, Cheney fails to even offer faint praise, often suggesting that he was simply too weak of a leader to take on the challenges of the world that Cheney understood so well.  An additional bit of intrigue is that the co-author of Cheney’s memoir is his daughter, Liz, who had an insider’s perspective on these officials since served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs under Colin Powell and as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State For Near Eastern Affairs under Rice.  Considering the difficulty of the times they were overseeing and the successes that these secretaries achieved, even fans of the Vice President may have difficulty reading these combative passages without wondering if the need to cast blame and settle scores overshadowed the need to present the history of the time dispassionately.

Whatever amount Cheney might disappoint, though, it is negligible compared to Rumsfeld when it comes to settling his scores.  Like Cheney, he also takes great pleasure lambasting Democrats in Congress who allowed the popularity of the war to dictate their public positions on it.  The well-known rifts between State and Defense come to life in his telling, as well.  He ensures to the best of his ability that Powell and his deputy Richard Armitage enjoy a reduced place in America’s history.  Although he claims to admire her, he goes out of his way to blame Secretary Rice and Ambassador Paul Bremer for much of the challenges the administration faced in Iraq.  He does most of this, again, by citing on his own memoranda and notes, which often comes across as shallow, simplistic, and worst of all, vindictive and self-serving.  President Bush largely exercises his right to stay above the fray, expressing disappointment at times but primarily keeping his comments from being personal.  It is a luxury of his office, and he manages to do so with more than a fair amount of modesty and dignity.

Beyond the score settling and legacy building, though, these memoirs also capture significant commonalities in the careers of these four powerful members of America’s national security structure during an incredibly challenging time.  Throughout their careers, especially those who served in the public sector the longest, they knew the same people, weathered many of the same bureaucratic and diplomatic battles, and learned a lot of the same lessons.  All of this, the people, the experiences, and the lessons learned, came together at a time when the stakes were at their highest and when their eventual decisions had the greatest consequences. 

The people they knew and served with made up the lion’s share of the American foreign policy establishment for the second half of the 20th Century.  From his earliest time in public service, Dick Cheney was given a chance to play at the highest level of national politics because of a young former congressman named Donald Rumsfeld.  They were all connected to George H. W. Bush, who was a senior statesman as far back as the Ford administration, where both Cheney and Rumsfeld served.  These books also sprinkle in names that shadowed all of their careers, from Brent Scowcroft, to James Baker or Henry Kissinger, and other members of the security and administrative establishment over their careers.

In none of these memoirs is the significance of being a part of the nation’s security establishment more foretelling of what will come during the George W. Bush years than that of Vice President Cheney.  Beyond being the chief of staff for Ford, Cheney was on the Select Committee on Intelligence during the low-intensity conflict of the Reagan years, and of course Secretary of Defense under the first President Bush.  From these experiences, he learned to protect the power of the Presidency over Congress; during Operation Desert Storm, he learned the value of including the media in the war execution, which would eventually lead to the embed program; he learned of the problems of giving Saddam Hussein any leeway whatsoever; and, from Panama, he learned the importance of moving quickly when the media and diplomatic landscape offered space for military action.  Rumsfeld’s lessons learned also came throughout a career of public service, starting back with his time as a pilot and going through his second tour as Secretary of Defense.  Arguably, no one had more experience at the position than he did when he ascended back to the office.  In Congress, he had been a part of the coup that eventually led to Gerald Ford becoming House Minority Leader.  He advised Nixon, was an envoy to the President to the Middle East, and a successful businessman in the private sector.  Like Cheney, his experiences put him in a very powerful position in the Bush administration.

            The experiences shared by these two senior officials seem to have made them natural allies, especially when examined through the relatively short careers at the national level of Rice, and to a much greater extent, President Bush.  Their differences are in part philosophical, but appear in these works to be more about experience in waging bureaucratic warfare to achieve one’s intended outcome.  While this infighting manifests itself as finger pointing and blame games in these books, there is a remarkable amount of similarity in certain aspects of their stories.  This is especially true with respect to the ways that they individually described the administration’s decision-making process with respect to Iraq.  Whether the consistency of their accounts is an indicator of veracity, of a concerted effort to get the story right, or just a coincidence in simply unclear.  In contrast with the finger pointing over who is to blame for the execution of the war, however, their common stories about the decision to invade Iraq suggest that they recognize the significance of this decision, and that they are embracing it for posterity. 

            Rice and Bush write the most about the long march to war with Iraq.  Rice, writing about her time as National Security Advisor, takes credit for telling the President about the term that would be the centerpiece of their effort against Saddam in February of 2002: “coercive diplomacy.”  Many can speculate over whether or not the decision to pursue coercive diplomacy, or the merging of military force with diplomatic pressures, would undoubtedly lead to war with Hussein’s Iraq or if it was initiated precisely because it would leave no other options, but the fact remains that all of these senior leaders detail the approach in this way.

            Coercive diplomacy is a foreign policy theory that attempts to shape an outcome in a nation or group by stating expectations diplomatically while threatening military action if the expectations are not met.  It would be a high stakes pursuit with normal countries, as their leaders consider the costs and the benefits of their options and perhaps even counter with their own efforts to win diplomatic support from their allies while rattling sabers as well.  With Hussein’s track record over the recent decades, it would seem that coercive diplomacy would be a very aggressive strategy, but one that all of these authors, in one way or another, endorsed in their books.

The approach began in 2002, a time when President Bush and his team had already responded decisively against enemy forces in Afghanistan, yet, as these authors insist, had not made any decisions on whether the nation would go to war in Iraq.  The United Nations weapons inspectors were the primary tool for this gambit, yet they proved to yield no fruit except for obvious stonewalling, stalling, and lies from Hussein, who only pretended to play along.  Cheney and Rumsfeld, hardened by their experiences leading up to and following the first Gulf War, were convinced that Hussein viewed America as weak and pushed for harder for the military side of the equation, while Rice, Bush, and Powell appear to have been more intent on letting the diplomatic process fail before introducing actual military forces.

Minus a few small squabbles over how committed Powell was to the presentation, another element of real consistency within their memoirs is with respect to the case for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq.  First, they argue that the international case for Iraq’s WMD was actually better than many recall looking back on a decade of failure to find them.  And second, although it may be hard to believe for many who followed that period closely, all four contend that the presence of WMD in Iraq was never really as important as the fact that Hussein was a terrible dictator who had a history of being a bad actor, and who would build and use WMD if he could in the future.  The cases that they provide for these assertions are consistent and as thorough as a legal brief, citing national and international sources for each and every claim that they make.

One hitch they all discuss, and with varying levels of disdain, came with the President’s ability to build foreign support for the war, especially through the United Nations.  Again, Cheney and Rumsfeld, drawing upon their experiences in previous wars, believed that previous UN Security Council Resolutions on Iraq and its compliance with weapons inspectors, the oil for food program, and so on, were enough to justify the war.  Secretary Powell, Rice, and eventually President Bush, were again more eager to build an international coalition.  More important to the President, it seemed, was his desire to help his key ally Tony Blair maneuver the domestic politics of his support for the war in any way that he could.  This included his extremely unpopular decision, especially among these writers, to pursue yet another UN Security Council Resolution after Resolution 1441 at Prime Minister Blair’s request.  Perhaps Rumsfeld and his fellow travelers were correct in opposing the additional resolution: it failed, and the administration invaded Iraq anyway.

Nearly a decade after the war began, and months after the troop drawdown in Iraq, the intense focus on the decisions that led up to the invasion in Iraq in these four memoirs is as telling of their perspective as are attempts to point out the failures of others in the war’s execution.  The consistency with which they tell these stories can certainly be attributed in part to the ample amount of public record leading up to the ultimate decisions in Iraq.  But it also suggests that these four public servants, who led key elements of the nation’s domestic and foreign policy apparatus during an incredibly turbulent period, are keenly aware of their collective roles in sending their nation’s military to war, and equally interested in preserving the best aspects of those decisions within the context of their time in office.  It is a shrewd calculation: while the wars will no doubt be managed with varying degrees of competence by various leaders and administrations, and no matter how victory is achieved or by whom, these leaders have bet their legacies on how historians will view the decision they made within the context of the times in which they made them. 


Categories: GWOT - 9/11 - Al Qaeda - Afghanistan - memoir - Iraq - Bush

About the Author(s)

Caleb S. Cage is a 2002 graduate of the United State Military Academy and a veteran of OIF.  His first book, The Gods of Diyala: Transfer of Command in Iraq, was co-authored by Gregory M. Tomlin and published by the Texas A & M University Press in 2008.  He is a founding editor of The Nevada Review, a journal dedicated to promoting and understanding the literature of his state.


Reading your interesting paper is some respect was deja vu for myself and I would believe for other Navy / Military Officers from the Vietnam era when the Kennedy selected / Lyndon Johnson retained Robert McNamara and his team of "whiz kids" ran the Pentagon, and a collection of others which David Halberstam in an excellent book referred to as the "Best and the Brightest--not as a compliment.

In addition to McNamara and his whiz kids were John Kenneth Galbraith, George Ball, McGeorge Bundy, Nicholas Katzenbach, Walt Whitman Rostow, McGeorge Bundy, Maxwell Taylor – military advisor to JFK, John Theodore McNaughton, William Bundy, etc. My memory of course is only this good, courtesy of Google. Probably unknown today these individuals were pre- Vietnam considered the geniuses of their day.

We have them to thank for Vietnam, basically running the Army into the ground, insuring it would require years for the Navy and Air Force to recover its lost capabilities wasted in Vietnam or simply due to a failure to obtain the needed budgets due to money being thrown into a wasted attempt at pacifying [COINing] South Vietnam and bombing the jungles of North Vietnam, the multi-service TFX, etc. The last item is 1960's military sarcasm. It was McNamara's favorite project. Like Rumsfeld he was going to remake the military more efficient at lesser cost--in his image, so to speak.

McNamara and Rumsfeld, Johnson and Bush, and so many others. Foolish policies and accordingly accompanying results.

We even had a few generals (very few) who had the courage to stand up to the foolish military policies of the administration they were serving such as Lt. General Victor (Brute) Krulak who sacrificed his chance to be the Commandant of the Marines by telling Lydon Johnson how badly he was managing Vietnam and General Eric Shinseki forced into early retirement when he stood up to Rumsfeld and accurately noted the hundreds of thousands of troops that would be required to secure Iraq.

How things never change.